There’s a growing wave of enthusiasm for degrees based on competency rather than credit hours. Echoing Sherman Dorn, Matt Reed asks whether high ed should just drop the “hours” from “credit hours.” His answer: Because then “credits” could mean anything or nothing.
For-profit providers have an incentive to inflate credits, writes Reed, who’s worked in the for-profit sector.
In my DeVry days, we were careful with the weekend program — which was specifically geared at working adults — to keep the number of classroom hours congruent with the requirements for the number of credits given, even when it became inconvenient. The idea was to avoid the suspicion that fell upon certain competitors, who made a habit of awarding outsize numbers of credits for various courses to both make it easier for students to complete programs and to keep their own labor costs down.
. . . If we just declare that credits mean whatever a given provider says they mean, then there’s no basis for denying federal funding or regional accreditation to a college that awards twelve credits for a three-hour class and a paper. And now that many of those classes are online — in which the entire conceit of “seat time” becomes vaporous — there would be nothing at all to put the brakes on a given college twisting “credits” to mean whatever is convenient at the time.
The “credit hour” was at least based on something, even though it was the wrong thing, he writes.
Competencies require a reliable way to document that students have acquired the skills they claim. That’s not simple. Southern New Hampshire University’s competency-based College for America — the first to receive approval for federal financial aid — doesn’t accept transfer credits. That doesn’t answer the question: How will a student transfer from a competency-based college to a credit-based one?
When nearly three out of four students aren’t enrolled in full-time, four-year degree programs, it’s time to go beyond the credit hour, writes the Gates Foundation’s Daniel Greenstein on Impatient Optimists.
The rigidness of semesters and courses and credit hours doesn’t work for adults who are juggling jobs, family and other priorities while they also work toward a degree – an elaborate dance that too often ends in students leaving school with no degree, but lots of debt. Many of today’s students aren’t interested in a classic college experience of dorms and all-nighters. Rather, they need college to be “unbundled,” and to be able to integrate it selectively, sometimes a course at a time, into their busy and full lives.
Competency-based education, which assesses what students know and can do, provides the flexibility today’s students need, argues Greenstein. In the competency model, students “progress at their own pace and to go deep on material they haven’t mastered, while not having to spend time or tuition on concepts and knowledge they’ve learned elsewhere.”
Not only are competency-based programs better for so many of today’s students, but they promise considerable advantages for employers, who, right now, evaluate newly-minted grads primarily on where they went to college and their grade point average. Because competency-based programs rely on regular student assessments of specific skills and abilities, they can provide employers with more detailed information about what prospective workers know and can do.
Lumina’s Tuning USA project, the European Union’s Bologna process and the American Association of Colleges & Universities’ LEAP initiative have evaluated the essential elements and outcomes that students must master to earn different degrees and credentials, Greenstein writes. Western Governors University led the way to online competency degrees. Now more traditional institututions, such as Southern New Hampshire University, Northern Arizona University and the University of Wisconsin system will be offering credits and credentials for competency.
Transfer students aren’t cash cows, yet they’re frequently milked by four-year colleges, write Alexander P. Ott and Bruce S. Cooper in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
, , , many colleges require a transfer student to make a commitment to attend—in the form of a nonrefundable deposit—before they will give out information about transfer credits. In short, they are saying, “Buy now! We’ll tell you later what it will actually cost you.”
Transfer students are more likely to be first-generation college students and come from low-income, minority families, write Ott and Cooper. They need to make an informed choice about which college will make it possible for them to complete a degree without delay.
Students earning credits for competency will be eligible for federal student aid, confirmed the U.S. Education Department in a letter this week. The “department is poised to approve an application by Southern New Hampshire University to award aid based on the direct assessment of student learning,” notes the Chronicle of Higher Education.
By clarifying that colleges may apply under the “direct assessment” provision—and encouraging them to do so—the Education Department is signaling a willingness to move beyond “seat time”—the time students spend in class—in awarding aid. That has important implications for new models of education, supporters of the provision say.
“It moves away from time as a proxy for learning, and that is key,” said Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University.
In the letter, David A. Bergeron, acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education, said competency-based programs “have the potential for assuring the quality and extent of learning, shortening the time to degree/certificate completion, developing stackable credentials … and reducing the overall cost of education.”
Martha J. Kanter, undersecretary of Education, told reporters the department will “be very careful” not to approve aid for fraudulent programs. Colleges will have to link their competencies to credit hours and earn accreditors’ approval of the equivalencies.
What do transfer students want? Matt Reed answers a question from a university staffer who wants to help transfers earn a four-year degree.
First, transfers want to get credit for their credits.
Nothing grinds a student’s gears more than being told she has to re-take a class she has already passed — and paid for — elsewhere. Articulation agreements and transfer blocs are supposed to prevent that, and they help, but the devil is in the details. Frequently a college will proclaim loudly that it takes all credits, but then relegate a bunch of them to “free elective” status. “Free elective” status is where credits go to die. Since very few four-year programs have many “free electives” in them, students wind up having to take (and pay for) far more than they should.
Transfers also want access to scholarships, Reed writes.
Many would appreciate support services to help them handle the transition.
Ten tips for transferring from community college include: Transfer with an associate degree, not just a handful of credits.
Lumina’s 2012 snapshot report shows much higher graduation rates for transfers with an associate degree.
Cost-conscious college students can earn very low-cost credits by taking a free online course and passing a challenge exam, reports Paul Fain at Inside Higher Ed.
. . . students can use free course content from providers like the Saylor Foundation and Education Portal to study for “challenge exams,” which may be the fastest and most inexpensive way to earn credits.
The examinations, like those offered by Excelsior College and the College Board’s College Level Examination Program (CLEP), are designed to test whether students grasp the concepts that would be taught in a conventional classroom version of general education courses. In that sense, they combine elements of both competency-based education and prior-learning assessment.
. . . Many, if not most, American colleges and universities accept that the tests are academically rigorous, and have accepted some Excelsior and CLEP exam credits, most of which cost less than $100. Another popular exam package is the U.S. Department of Defense’s DSST, formerly known as the Dantes Subject Standardized Tests, which can earn credit recommendations from the American Council on Education (ACE). And colleges, particularly those that cater to adult students, also develop and offer their own challenge exams for prior-learning credit.
University of Wisconsin-Green Bay sophomore Alex Stenner earned three credits in Psychology 101 during his two week winter vacation. Total cost: $90. Educational Portal’s self-paced course — short video lectures and quizzes — was free. He paid to take the CLEP test. His university’s Psych 101 course is taught in a large lecture hall with little chance to make personal connections with professors or fellow students, he says. Why spend the time and money?
“Massive open online courses could also be used by students to prepare for challenge exams,” writes Fain. The California community college system may partner with MOOC providers to help students pass credit-bearing exams, cutting wait lists and easing pressure to squeeze more students into traditional courses.
To award college credits for students’ prior learning, colleges need a way to assess their training and experience, notes Community College Times. Rio Salado College in Arizona is using LearningCounts, an electronic portfolio-assessment initiative from the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL).
Students create electronic portfolios that are “assessed by expert faculty members from across the U.S. who examine the content and breadth of each student’s on-the-job learning, corporate training, independent study, military service and volunteer service,” reports Community College Times. LearningCounts then recommends how much credit to award.
Houston Community College (HCC) in Texas is using CAEL’s tool to provide an objective portfolio assessment, said Madeline Burillo, associate vice chancellor for workforce instruction at HCC.
“Especially in large community college systems where you have different colleges, a department chair at one college might have a different opinion about a portfolio than a department chair from another college.”
North Iowa Area Community College (NIACC) is testing LearningCounts to replace a cumbersome portfolio-assessment process.
The Carnegie Unit, which measures learning based on time in class rather than actual learning, may be on the way out. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which developed the measure in 1906, will study ways to measure competency using a $460,000 Hewlett Foundation grant.
. . . the unit is a gauge of the amount of time a student has studied a subject. For example, a total of 120 hours in one subject, meeting four or five times a week for 40 to 60 minutes, for 36 to 40 weeks each year earns the student one “unit” of high school credit.
The Carnegie Unit was developed to push for higher standards, not to measure learning, says researcher Elena Silva. ”It is not a good universal measure for student progress. … We are curious to know how it might be changed and more aligned with better, richer tools for measurement.”
It’s about time to rethink the credit hour, writes Matt Reed, a community college administrator.
It’s now normal for degree programs to specify student learning outcomes, and to be able to measure them. That’s huge.
Online education has thrown the whole concept of “seat time” into question, too. Since most online instruction is asynchronous anyway, it’s becoming harder to say with a straight face that learning has to happen in 75 minute chunks.
Now, MOOCs are starting to raise issues about the notion of “credit” itself, even independent of the “hour” part.
. . . At the same time, the federal financial aid programs are actually getting more persnickety about the most backward-looking elements of the credit hour, in response mostly to abuses in the for-profit sector.
Financial aid and faculty contracts are based on credit hours, at least in part, Reed writes. Figuring out an alternative will require a lot of work. So let’s get started.
Assembling credits from AP and a variety of online courses, Richard Linder earned a debt-free associate degree from Excelsior College, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education. The total cost was $3,000.
His credits included art appreciation, music appreciation, macroeconomics, psychology, accounting, statistics, trigonometry, Fire Service Management and a series of Federal Emergency Management Agency courses, such as Livestock in Disasters. He used StraighterLine, Penn Foster College, Microsoft, National Fire Academy and other online providers.
Excelsior, which is accredited, specializes in online learning for adults: “We offer busy students around the world the advantage of both earning credit at a distance and applying previously-earned college-level credit toward degree or certificate programs.”
California streamlined community college transfers two years ago, but progress has been uneven, concludes Meeting Compliance — Missing the Mark by the Campaign for College Opportunity.
As a result of the new state law, a state committee developed a framework of coursework for 25 majors that account for 79 percent of transfers. Each community college is supposed to use the framework to create pathways to associate transfer degrees in specific majors; the California State University system is supposed to these degrees as equivalent to two years of CSU coursework.
Eighteen community colleges have adopted nine to 18 associate degrees for transfer, while 49 colleges have approved two to four degrees, just meeting the minimum set by the chancellor’s office.
Only four of 23 California State University campuses have approved all the transfer majors as equivalent to CSU coursework. While 20 have accepted at least 80 percent of the degree pathways. “However, a deeper analysis shows that 10 CSU campuses have deemed fewer than 70 percent of the degree options within the 20 majors as available” to transfer students.